Have any of you ever seen a television program called, The Voice?
I am a very selective TV viewer (watching almost exclusively programs from Knowledge Network, PBS and the History Channel) so it was only by accident I saw this program last year when I was visiting my younger daughter, Heather. The basic premise of the show is that there are four judges who are professional singers, who try to find unique and special singers and to work with them. What they are looking for is the essence of a person’s gift for singing and the potential to develop that gift into a great singer. In the screening of applicants, in order to focus solely on the essence of the singer, “their voice”, the judges have their backs turned to the singer so they are not distracted by the singer’s outward style and appearance. The singer then gives their best effort in singing a song of their own choice. In this “blind audition” if the judges hear potential and a distinct voice they would like to work to enhance, they will turn around and face the singer. At the end of the song the singer chooses one of the judges who has turned to face them, to be their coach and to mentor them and to help them to be better singers. That’s the part of the show I like: not being distracted or prejudiced by outward appearances and in having accomplished vocal artists mentoring those who want to have careers in the vocal music industry. (Of course, this being a North American television program, there is glitz, drama, competition, and prestige for the winning coach, as well as rewards for the winner of the competition.)
Prejudice, and biased assumptions about a person’s abilities based their outward appearance or presumed merit, is more common in most societies than we might wish to believe. In the ancient Mediterranean cultural, social and religious systems of Jesus’ day, it was very common for people to be judged and to be found lacking because of perceived defects of character or physical appearance. It’s important to remember that, in that time and place, physical imperfection was viewed as a punishment from God and was thought to reflect spiritual and religious shortcomings on the part of the afflicted. There was, perhaps, no worse fate to befall a person than to be diagnosed with leprosy. As an aside, we know from scholarly research of Greek medical writings of the same era, that what we know as leprosy or Hansen’s Disease as it’s now called, was not known in first-century Palestine. However, the term leprosy was used in the Bible to refer to a wide variety of skin diseases and the word leper became synonymous with someone who was untouchable and an outcast in the community.
To be defined as a leper was a dreaded social disease. Lepers were literally “outcasts” – cast out of the community. Someone who was declared a leper was feared and ostracized. They couldn’t work to earn a living, they were cut off from family and friends, they were cut off from their religious community, they were literally “untouchable”. All “lepers” had to live outside city limits, had to wear their hair long and unkempt, wear torn clothing, cover their mouth and cry out, “unclean, unclean,” to warn off any able bodied persons from accidental contact with them. In a culture that was based on tight knit social and community systems to be discarded and shunned was devastating and worse than being physically dead.
Keeping in mind the tremendous social stigma and shame of being a leper, it is amazing that the leper in today’s gospel story boldly came up to Jesus and kneeled before him saying, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” The leper likely knew that Jesus was known to favour compassion over the strict letter of the Law and believed that Jesus had the power to heal him. Just think of how powerful it would be, for a person who had been rendered less than human to have someone filled with the light of God’s love, stop, look him in the eyes, stretch out a hand in love and touch him. By doing so Jesus was declaring that this man was clean—was whole—was a beloved member of God’s community. But, Jesus also knew that to be accepted back into society, the former leper would have to go to a priest and fulfill the religious requirements to be reinstated socially and Jesus directed him to do so. But, we know from the story that the former leper did not follow Jesus’ request to keep quiet about Jesus’ involvement but rather joyously heralded Jesus’ touch as having healed him. This attention would have alerted the leaders in the community and made it impossible for Jesus to continue his work in the city so he moved out to the countryside and people travelled there to see him.
This story, as you can tell, goes well beyond a simple healing story. This person was given the gift of the restoration of his life within his religious and social community. And Jesus, in touching the leper, challenges the cultural and religious norms of his day and declares them to be unjust. Some translations of this story say that Jesus responds to the leper with pity or mercy and other translations say Jesus responds with anger. Responding with anger, not at the victim of injustice but at the unjust system that would treat human beings in such an inhuman way, makes sense to me when I think of Jesus’ passion for justice and his commitment to teaching and living the ways of God’s commonwealth on earth.
As I spent time, this week, reflecting on this gospel story I wondered about the ways in which our North American society labels some as unclean, unfit, and untouchable. There are certainly many ways in which ignorance and prejudice can alienate and separate people from acceptance and full participation in our culture and society. There are many ways that people can be treated much like the lepers of Jesus’ day but the example that came most vividly to mind, for me, is that of the stigma and alienation of those living with HIV/AIDS.
In the decades since the discovery of HIV/AIDS there has been much progress in the awareness of the disease and in the development of medical treatments and support for those living with HIV/AIDS. What has been slow to eradicate is the social stigma that can be overwhelmingly oppressive for those living with HIV/AIDS. In 1993, the movie, “Philadelphia”, addressed some of these issues. At one particularly poignant moment in the movie the main character, Andrew, a lawyer who is living with AIDS, reads a passage from an American law book to another lawyer, Joe, who he is trying to persuade to take his case of wrongful dismissal. The law book stated, “…the prejudice surrounding AIDS exacts a ‘social death’ that precedes the actual death”.
It is because of fear of being ostracized that many people who are living with HIV/AIDS keep their diagnosis secret from all those but their doctors and outreach workers. In the early years of the last decade I knew such a person who had kept this secret from her family, close friends, and community of faith for fear that she would be ostracized if people knew the truth. In the end, even though the disease took its toll emotionally and psychologically, it was an accident that caused her death. At her funeral, knowing that it was her wish to keep her secret from everyone including her family, I could not speak of her courage or her fears. At the reception
I saw a couple of staff people from the local HIV/AIDS advocacy and outreach organization. In a discreet and confidential conversation we shared our profound sadness about the loss of a wonderful person not just through her death but in the secrecy that constrained her life and the repressive prejudice which constantly held her in the grip of fear.
So important are the issues of stigma and discrimination with respect to HIV/AIDS that for two years in a row (2002 and 2003) the World AIDS Day focus was on eliminating stigma and discrimination. UNAIDS stated,
“Help us fight fear, shame, ignorance and injustice worldwide.” When I was preparing for a World AIDS Day service, in 2003, I came across a quote on the Internet from the United Methodist Church in the United States which said, “Because stigma and discrimination are major obstacles to effective HIV/AIDS prevention and care, one way churches can help overcome these problems is to welcome everyone. Christian hospitality is a key aspect of congregational ministry with people living with HIV/AIDS and their loved ones. When congregations reach out and embrace all people, including those affected by HIV/AIDS, healing happens, not only among individuals but the church community as a whole.”
We don’t always know all the challenges that people face in their lives but if we embody in our actions what we profess to believe then we can be a safe harbour and healing oasis for all who come through our doors. To be the Body of Christ, in our time and place, means to embrace Jesus’ radical vision of an inclusive and caring community. It is to look beyond another person’s outward appearance, whether flattering or not, and see the essence of who they are as brothers and sisters – as God’s beloved ones. In the moments when we are able to do this God’s grace is experienced and God’s radically inclusive commonwealth is realized.
With open eyes and open hearts may we intentionally live
God’s way of love and justice today, tomorrow and always.